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Arbour exits top UN human rights post after four bruising years

June 30, 2008

AFP
June 28, 2008

GENEVA -- Canadian jurist Louise Arbour has managed to strengthen the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights during her four-year mandate which ends Monday, diplomats and human rights groups say.

But her successor faces a tough time dealing with member states seeking to muzzle the United Nations' voice of conscience.

Arbour, 61, announced in March that she would not renew her mandate due to personal reasons, after a period that saw her office released damning reports on countries ranging from the United States to Zimbabwe to Sudan.

"This job is very tough... I'm not prepared to make this commitment for another four years," she said at the time.

A Western diplomat praised her "political bravery".

"She is leaving behind an excellent record," he said. "She demonstrated the main quality that one would expect of her post -- independence."

Arbour, a native of Montreal, first gained international prominence as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

It was there in May 1999 that she notably indicted Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian leader, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

AFter a stint as a Canadian supreme court justice, she took up her UN post where, at the end of 2005, she was criticised by the United States for condemning the CIA's secret network of prisons for terror suspects.

"The search for security at any price could create a world in which we would feel neither safe nor free," she warned then.

Arbour has undertaken many difficult missions, from Cambodia to Chechyna; in Israel her vehicle was hit with stones. She was unable to visit Tibet, as China rejected her request to do so after riots in Lhasa last March.

Human rights groups are unrestrained in their praise.

"Arbour has been a true champion for human rights and replacing her would not be easy," said Amnesty International, adding that she was "a forceful and formidable advocate for human rights protection".

Human Rights Watch congratulated Arbour for having doubled her office's budget, allowing field bureaus to be opened in several countries.

"She is leaving the office in a better state than when she had taken up her post, said Sebastien Gillioz, who is in charge of UN relations at the HRW.

"She fought hard within the United Nations to increase her influence, leveraging on her privileged contact with Kofi Annan," the former UN secretary general, he said.

Her background as a lawyer and judge led her naturally to frame her arguments and to reason with countries using international law as the basis, Gillioz added.

But other human rights campaigners have been disappointed by this approach, as they would have preferred a political figure who could make declarations and statements condemning violations.

Her successor, whom UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has yet to appoint, would have to work with the Human Rights Council, a 47-nation body whose membership includes countries with controversial human rights records.

"The successor would have to protect her legacy as it is currently under attacks on many fronts," said Gillioz.

The Human Rights Council, shunned by the United States, is dominated in numbers by developing countries. Much of its attention has been focused on Israel, while it has dragged its feet on other hotspots such as Darfur.

It is currently seeking a rule change that would give it more control over the budget of the high commissioner's office and the deployment of its field offices.

In her farewell message to the council, Arbour said: "I wish to warn against the continued pursuit of narrow parochial political agendas that represents the greatest impediment to the full realisation of many rights which are, otherwise, clearly within our reach."
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